There’s an old woman who lives in an old cabin out in the woods. The old woman has always lived there.
Sometimes, she’s seen pulling water from a well near town. Her hands are milk-white with deeply purple veins. There’s always a big black dog at her side, she’s never seen without it.
Those brave enough to venture towards her old cabin find a murder of crows roosting in her roof. They watch the house, day and night. There’s always at least three.
Inside the cabin is one room. A trap door sits just before a vast open fireplace and a big black pot is always bubbling on the fire. Herbs and dried plants hang from the ceiling. A black cat sits on a table or a bookshelf or on the mantle.
The old woman makes medicine. That’s putting it kindly.
“She was old when I was young,” your grandfather says of her. “Don’t go near that hag’s lair, boy, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.”
You know that there are others in the village that are curious about her. The mason’s wife is brave enough to make the journey to her cabin, with the crows and the cat, whenever illness falls on her family. People avoid going to her unless death is the only other option.
Your sisters are coughing up blood. Your sweetheart is pale and feverish. You buried your mother yesterday. Your older sister is listless and the baby is too quiet. Your father and brother are deep in the mines and won’t be back in time.
You know the stories. You know the warnings. The old woman has helped your town before but she’s a witch just the same. You take a bag of coal and a basket of colored glass from the church windows and you make the walk into the woods.
The crows gather in the trees. They watch you with their beady eyes as you make your way towards the witch’s cabin. There are always crows in the trees.
The witch is outside, kneeling in a garden. You linger near the trees, watching as she inspects a pepper on its vine.
“I know you’re there,” she calls.
She disregards the coal, but takes the glass. You shift nervously as she leaves you in the doorway. The cat watches you from the rafters; it has vibrant green eyes and seems to see your fear. The big black dog lies by the fire, muzzle between its paws. It’s watching you with one eye. The other is cloudy and half-shut.
The witch takes herbs from her ceiling, crushes them, puts them in jars. She spits into something and tosses a pinch of powder into the fire that makes the flames roar an angry red. The dog doesn’t move. She never takes her cloak off. It’s stiflingly hot in the cabin.
She gives you a box of tea for your sweetheart. Poultice for the girls to chew. She tells you to make your sister nurse the baby first thing in the morning in the sunlight.
“Give her one of these to suck on in the mornings if she’s too tired,” the witch says, handing you a small box of leaves.
You go back with the coal still on your back. The cat jumps down from the rafters as you turn to go and the witch watches it; so do you. The cat stretches, its bright green eyes fixed on you, then it calmly walks outside.
“Until next time,” the witch says.
You don’t know if she’s talking to you or the cat. From under her hood, you can see her lined face arranged in a smile. You hope she’s talking to the cat.
You leave. The cat is outside licking its hind legs, and as you pass, it gets up and starts to walk alongside you. You try to ignore it. The crows watch you go, then take off and fly back in the direction of the witch’s cabin as you leave them. The cat stays by your side. Near the well, you realize it’s stopped. You pause and watch as it stares into a bush. Several crows look down at the cat as well. It takes off and for a moment, you just stand there. You don’t know what for.
It comes back a moment later with a shrew in its mouth. You shake yourself and keep walking.
The cat walks with you all the way back to your town. You hurry past the other houses, burlap curtains falling back over the empty windows as you go. The cat stays with you. You get to your house and knock.
Your older sister opens the door, the baby on her hip. She looks exhausted.
“Chew this,” you tell her, thrusting a leaf into her face.
She takes the leaf and puts it in her mouth. You hurry inside and your sister aims a kick at the cat when it tries to follow you.
“Be out of here, devil!” she shouts. “You have no place in this house!”
The cat hisses and runs off with its shrew. You don’t know how to feel. It was just a cat.
You give the tea to your sweetheart; her color improves. You give the poultice to the girls; their coughs ease away. You instruct your older sister to nurse the baby in the morning sunshine and she does it reluctantly, sitting on the back porch with a heavy blanket over her child and breast. She chews a new leaf every morning and her energy comes back up, and the sunshine seems to give the baby breath to wail.
Your brother comes back from the mines with your father in a wheelbarrow. His leg is broken and badly infected. When he learns about his wife’s death, he rages and smashes every bottle of shine in the house, then collapses and sleeps for a day straight.
“Give me something shiny,” you beg your brother.
“What for?” he spits. “Get to the dogs, boy!”
You steal a nugget of silver from your father’s pouch. The cat is sitting on a stump outside. You meet its eye for a moment; it licks a paw and sweeps it over its ear.
“She can fix this?” you whisper.
The cat jumps off the stump and heads into the forest.
You run half the way. The crows take off shrieking as you tear through the bramble.
The witch is waiting on her porch in a rocking chair. The cat sits in her lap and she is petting it slowly. It’s watching you again.
“Evening,” the witch says. “Nice night for a walk?”
You thrust out the nugget of silver, out of breath. She hums and leans forward to take it from your hand. Her nails are black around the edges. From dirt, you hope.
“Seems nice,” the witch murmurs. “What’s the matter now?”
She grumbles about your father’s leg and shakes her head to hear about his temper. She mixes herbs in a heavy stone bowl, mashing them with a muddler the size of a club. She mutters to herself as she takes down leaves, flowers, and adds drops of liquids you don’t dare question.
She hands you two jars.
“One is for the leg,” she says, “the other’s for his heart.”
You hold them close. You still can’t see under her hood.
“Thank you,” you whisper.
The witch’s old lips curl at the corners, exaggerating the shadows of her hood. She huffs.
“Off with you, child.”
You run back home. The cat is waiting at the back porch.
“Boy!” your brother yells as you burst in. “What the Sam-hill were you doing?”
You fall to your knees by your father’s bed and quickly unscrew the first jar, scoop out a glob, and smear it across the foul-smelling wound.
“What the—!” your brother shouts.
“Let him!” your sister, his wife, begs. “Just accept it!”
She still chews the witch’s leaves. Your sweetheart still drinks the tea.
Your brother hovers nearby, anxious. You unscrew the second jar and dribble the thick liquid into your father’s mouth. In his sleep, he groans and licks his lips.
“It’s his heart,” you say absently. “That’s what she said. It’s for his heart.”
Your brother swears and turns away, crossing himself.
“The cat is back,” your little sister shouts.
You redress your father’s leg with the witch’s poultice. Your brother scares off the cat with the pot and kettle.
The crows settle in the trees again like a blanket of black snow. You still feel uneasy as they watch you. The cat lingers under your porch and leaves dead mice on the step.
Winter falls. Your father’s leg heals and his temper mellows. He doesn’t replace the shine. Spring breaks. Your sister finishes the leaves the witch gave you.
She presses a round copper plate into your hands.
“Fetch me more,” she hisses. “Be quick!”
You find the cat waiting outside. It flicks its ears as if to say What are you waiting for? and hops off the railing.
You walk. The crows see you, then take off towards the cabin. You reach the old house and find the witch standing in the garden, her skirts tugged up around her hips as she squashes berries with her bony toes in a wide metal tub.
“Hello,” she says, her back to you. “Are your feet clean? Never mind, use that bucket to wash them.”
You pull up your trouser legs and remove your shoes and stockings. The bucket is full of fresh, perfectly temperate water. A rag and a bar of soap are waiting for you. You scrub the dirt from your feet and ankles, then climb into the tub with the witch.
“There’s a good child,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to jump on them.”
A grin breaks your face. The cat jumps onto a fence post and flicks its tail and ears; it looks pleased. The old dog lifts its head from its paws on the porch to watch you dance in the tub.
The witch climbs out of the tub and washes her feet again. You, with your young legs, squash the berries happily.
“What are you making?” you ask.
The witch pushes back her hood and grins at you. Her teeth are pointed and yellow, but her face is no different than your grandmother’s had been. Her eyes are a rich, honey color.
“Poison,” she says with glee.
In the end, you return with two boxes of the leaves and the shiny copper plate still in your pack. Your sister doesn’t question it. You stash the plate under your pallet for next time.
There isn’t a next time, not in summer, not in autumn. The winter falls hard, but in your house, the flour is untouched by insects or mice. The pickles keep all winter long. When your youngest sister slashes open her knee slipping on the ice, you put the last of the poultice used on your father’s broken leg on the cut and it’s gone in three days.
Your grandfather looks at you warily now.
“That cat’s been following you,” he says. “I know it’s after you, boy.”
You have nothing to say to that. The cat continues to catch the mice. It’s just a cat.
“You’re old enough to come with us,” your brother says when he and your father return for the winter. “We could use the extra help.”
You think of the cat and the crows and the witch’s dog.
“Your wife still needs help,” you make the excuse. “I would be in your way more than hers.”
Your brother and father return to the mines. Your grandfather catches a cough as a chill comes over the spring.
“I don’t need no witchcraft,” he rasps.
You say nothing, but you put a few herbs in his tea and mask it with spoonfuls of honey. The cough goes away in a week.
The baby starts talking. Your sweetheart holds him in her lap and gives you a look. You don’t look back.
You see your sister is low on the leaves before she asks. You grab the copper plate and head into the woods.
The witch is on her porch, petting the dog. The cat trots up to her from your side and lies down between the dog’s tail and paws. The witch reaches down and scratches the cat’s ears, then looks up to you and grins, showing her yellow teeth.
“What’s it now?” she asks.
“The leaves,” you say, “for my sister.”
You hold out the plate. “Please?”
The witch shakes her head. “Too much is no good.”
She gets up and heads inside.
“Here, child,” she calls.
You follow, but pause to stroke the dog’s ears. It looks up to you with its mouth lolling from its mouth and you smile back at it.
“Give her these,” the witch says, tossing you a bag of tea leaves. “Once before bed, it will help her sleep.”
You hold the plate out. The witch shakes her head.
“Have a seat,” she says.
You pull out a chair. The cat strolls inside and leaps into your lap. You automatically begin to pet it. The witch shuffles around; her knobbly feet are stained purple again. You wonder who the poison is for. The church warden died a few weeks ago. You helped dig the grave. He used to beat his wife. You wouldn’t mourn if the witch killed him.
“Can you read?” the witch asks.
“Some? I do better with my grandfather’s almanac than the Bible.”
The witch lets out a barking laugh. She pulls down a worn book from her shelf, shuffles around again, and holds it out to you.
“Study that,” she says, “and you’ll have to visit me less.”
You hesitate. The witch narrows her eyes for a moment, then her lips spread in a toothy grin.
“You can still visit,” she sneers.
You take the book. When you stand up, the cat jumps onto your shoulders.
“Come back soon,” the witch tells you.
At the door, you hesitate.
“Do you have anything for falling in love?” you ask.
The witch looks at you, her eyes narrow and her heavy jowls turned down. You look at the ground and swallow nervously. You feel seen.
“No,” she says.
Your shoulders fall. You nod. “It was worth a try,” you say softly, turning to go.
“Tell your girl you’re walking with God,” the witch adds with another sneer. “She’ll let you go.”
You stop, thinking, then nod again and leave. The cat stays secure on your shoulders as you walk. You begin to read with the fading daylight; the book is a collection of plants and mushrooms, what to avoid and what to seek out. You find the leaf that your sister had been chewing. You smile and file it away for later, in case she has another child.
When you get home, your grandfather’s cough is back. You dive into the book and find that you’d been right to give him honey the first time, so you try that again with a few more herbs.
In the summer, your sweetheart starts dropping hints about a wedding. You tell her you’ve been spending time with the Bible and you need more time with the Lord before you marry, if you do ever. She looks disappointed, but not surprised.
In the fall, she marries the mason’s son. You clap at their wedding and smile. It’s better this way.
You visit the witch to be quizzed on your herbs. She praises your quick learning and gives you a new book, one on potions. You hide this one, but it’s still easier to read than the Bible.
You’re starting to understand why.
In the early winter, your brother and father return. They’re tired and your father is worn. You know it’s the last year he can spend so long in the mines.
“You’re coming in the spring,” your brother says.
You have to agree.
You’re nearing manhood. Your sweetheart told the preacher about your devotion to the Bible, and he’s begun to quiz you on its contents. It makes your stomach turn to think of much of it and it’s getting harder to avoid the preacher’s questions. You do not look forward to the mine, but at least it will give you an out from discussing the Bible with the preacher.
As the winter starts to fade, you have had no excuse to see the old woman in the woods, but spring nears and you want to say goodbye. On an afternoon that your brother shoos you and your sisters from the house while your father visits his brothers, you trudge through the melting snow to the witch’s house to give her some of the extra flour. You find her in bed with the dog lying at her side.
She waves you close.
“I have one last gift for you,” she wheezes, then lifts a shaking, gnarled finger to point to the bookshelf. “The center of the center.”
You find a handbound sheaf of papers in the center of the middle shelf. The first page is blank, but the second, there’s writing. The ink is an old, red-brown.
Reading that first page, you know what it is. Your heart hammers against your chest. It’s a thrill you haven’t felt since first laying eyes on the witch.
“Come here, child,” the witch murmurs.
You sit at her side. The cat jumps onto the bed and sits at her feet.
“Brew this,” the witch tells you, “and wait. They’ll come sooner than you think.”
“Does it hurt?” you whisper back.
The witch just laughs. Maybe she thinks your question is foolish, or maybe she’s amused by how quickly you’ve made up your mind.
“Girl,” she wheezes, “you still got lots t’a learn.”
You stay with her until she dies. When her eyes go glassy, the dog sits up and howls.
The earth is soft behind her house. You dig her grave alone. The crows watch. One lands on your shoulder and drops two silver coins into your hand, then flies off. You put the old woman’s body into the earth, then set the coins on her closed eyes. You cover her with dirt again. The cat and the dog sit side-by-side as you bury their witch. They are silent.
You go inside. You brew the tea. You bar the doors and undress to your skin, sit by the fire and wait.
The dog gets down from the bed and sits across from you. The cat walks around you, lashing its tail.
You drink the tea. You wait. Your eyes grow heavy.
A rough hand touches your cheek. You jerk your eyes open.
Where the dog sat, now sits a man with horns like a ram’s curling from his forehead. One eye is black, with no color or white to it. The other is marred by a long scar, half-shut, and a cloudy gray. He grins at you and his teeth are sharp and jagged. He touches your face with a hand the size of a spade, nails long and yellowed like the witch’s teeth.
“It’s nice to properly meet you,” he says in a rich, honeyed voice.
Something soft brushes your back. You jerk and where the cat was, a lithe woman leans over your shoulder. Her eyes are a vibrant green. She, too, has horns, but her teeth are all fangs that drip with something sticky. Her long black hair swings into her face.
“Enchanting,” she murmurs.
“Does it hurt?” you ask again.
The man laughs, low and deep. “Oh, sweetheart,” he rumbles.
The woman takes your jaw and pulls your face up, her fangs glinting in the firelight. “Of course it does,” she purrs.
Her fangs drip with what tastes like honey, but burns like fire in your veins.
There is an old woman living in the woods. Her face is lined and browned by the sun. Fine, white hairs curl over her upper lip and under her chin in thin patches. Crows roost in her roof, a cat shadows her cabin, and a big black dog is always seen at her side. She crafts medicine, and that is putting it kindly.
They say that she once stole a boy from the village. No one has dared search her property for the remains of the boy, the second oldest son of a coal miner, but people know that she had something to do with his disappearance. When he vanished, those who dared visit her cabin said that the witch had grown younger, slimmer, taller. They say she must have absorbed the miner’s son, because her jaw and her nose were just like his had been.
She’s a woman of ill renown, they say of her. “Stay back, boy, she’s a man-eater. Her lips might be honeyed, but there’s poison in her kiss.”
Or so your old hometown still believes.